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Post-Medieval Archaeology 40/1 (2006), 33–61
‘Unfitt for any moderne service’? Arms and
armour from James Fort
SUMMARY: Following a devastating Indian attack in 1622 that killed a quarter of the Virginia
colonists, King James I bestowed a ‘princely and free guift’ of weaponry on the Virginia Company
of London for the colony’s use. The gift included calivers, pistols, jacks of plate, brigandines, shirts
of mail, and other arms and armour that were deemed ‘unfitt for any moderne service’ in England.
At first glance, this shipment of obsolete arms appears to substantiate the traditional historical view
that the English colonists were too ill equipped in both materials and skills to settle Virginia successfully. Recent excavations at James Fort, Jamestown, the site of the colony’s initial settlement and its
seat of government, have unearthed a wealth of arms and armour that attests the character of early
military life at Jamestown. The evidence suggests that the Virginia experience led to adaptation of
traditional military practices and equipment, rendering the ‘unfit’ arms and armour effective and
useful for the context.
equipment quickly to the colonists so they could
‘take just revenge’ and ‘secure themselves against
. . . any other forraigne Enimy’,2 the Virginia
Company of London3 petitioned the Crown for
certain arms stored in the Tower of London. James
I agreed to make a gift of the requested weapons,
which were described as being ‘not only old and
much decayed but with their age growne also
altogether unfitt and of no use for any moderne
In September 1622, a shipment of these arms
including 1,000 bills, 700 calivers, 300 short pistols
with fire locks, 300 harquebuses, 400 coats and
shirts of mail, 100 brigandines, 40 jacks of plate,
2,000 iron skulls, 400 bows and 800 sheaves of
arrows, was supplied to the colony. Half of the
bills and 100 of the firearms were diverted to
Bermuda at that colony’s request. Bermuda also
received all the gifted bows and arrows for safekeeping until Virginia had need of them and could
ensure that they would not fall into Indian hands,
thereby making the natives ‘acquainted with the
manner of fashioninge the Arrowe heads’.5
On the morning of 22 March 1622 the English
settlements along the James River in Virginia were
surprised by a co-ordinated Indian attack that
left over 300 men, women and children dead. The
attack, organized by the Pamunkey Indian chief
Opechancanough, took advantage of the complacency that had developed in the colony during
the eight years of peace following Pocahontas’
marriage to John Rolfe. Accustomed to Indians
visiting or living amongst them, many of the
English were killed with their own tools and
weapons before they were even aware of ‘the blow
that brought them to destruction’.1 By using the
tactic of surprise, Opechancanough achieved more
than he could ever hope to accomplish by a war
waged against the settlers with their firearms and
This act of violence spread fear throughout
the colony and exposed the vulnerability of the
isolated settlements stretched along the James
River. In a desperate attempt to send military
© Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology 2006
DOI: 10.1179/174581306X160116
The supply of obsolete and disintegrating
weaponry from England appears to substantiate
the traditional view of the Virginia colony that
gained momentum following the American Civil
War — as a fiasco, poorly planned, ill-supplied,
and mismanaged. Nineteenth-century historians
investigating America’s beginnings minimized the
role of Jamestown, located in the economically
and culturally depressed South, in favour of
Plymouth, in the victorious North. Unlike the
English colony in Plymouth, motivated by religious principles and settled by devout families
making a ‘new’ England in a New World, the first
permanent English settlement of Jamestown has
been portrayed as an economic scheme hatched
by a group of entrepreneurs, essentially to line
their pockets with as little expenditure as possible.
Jamestown is seen as a colony that nearly failed —
or that did fail — because it was overpopulated
with effete gentlemen who would rather ‘bowl in
the streets’6 than search for food or repair their
ruinous shelters. The colonists were represented
as a bunch of dilettantes, unprepared for the hardships facing them in Virginia and clueless as to
how to protect themselves.7
Since 1994, archaeological excavations of
the fort first built by the colonists in 1607 have uncovered numerous elements of arms and armour.
The finds from closely dated deposits indicate that
from the beginning the Virginia colonists were supplied with the same type of military equipment that
was described as outmoded in 1622. As the finds
from English Civil War contexts illustrate, it is not
unusual to find arms and armour in military use
many years after they are considered out of date.8
Usually this reflects a scarcity of arms and a lack
of funding to acquire them at short notice, as was
certainly the case with the Virginia colony in 1622,
but was not entirely true in 1607. While funding
was always an issue with the Virginia Company, it
had months to supply the first group of colonists
and years of experience provided by previous
explorations of the New World to inform its
The manner of warfare the colonists faced,
or thought they would face, in the New World
certainly dictated the type of weaponry with which
they were supplied. The commonly expressed view
that the colonists were not physically or psychologically prepared for what they found in Virginia
is over-simplistic and misleading.9 The English
had already made several attempts to establish
colonies in the New World, beginning with Martin
Frobisher in the 1570s and ending with the ‘lost
colonists’ of Roanoke in 1583. Although these
efforts failed, they helped to inform the planners of
the Virginia venture. Moreover, the English had
colonized successfully in Ireland, where they also
faced a resistant native population that engaged in
guerrilla warfare. By the time the English arrived
in Virginia, they were equipped with arms and
artillery both to defend their settlement against
anticipated Spanish attacks (which never materialized), and from the sometimes hostile indigenous
population. They retained European military
methods that worked in Virginia, and abandoned
or adapted those that did not.
The colonists observed that the fighting methods of the Virginia Indians were ‘by Stratagems,
trecheries, or surprisals’.10 Combat between the
two groups consisted of skirmishes at fairly short
range, as the Indians’ chief offensive weapons were
wooden swords, and the bow and arrow, which
were inaccurate at distances over 50m.11 The
English quickly adapted from modern battlefield
tactics, which used massed soldiers in rank and
file, to more unconventional warfare. This was a
warfare that the colonists who were veterans of
the Irish wars, such as the colony’s first president
Edward Maria Wingfield, would recognize. John
Smith speaks of training the men to ‘march, fight,
and scirmish in the woods . . . [so that] wee were
better able to fight with Powhatan’s whole force
in our order of battle amongst the Trees’.12 So,
although outmoded for the type of formal battles
in vogue in Europe, it could be argued that the
colonists’ outdated equipment represented suitable arms and armour for the ambush-type ‘old
style’ engagements the English encountered with
the Indians.
At the time Jamestown was settled there was
a shortage of arms in England. There had been no
considerable military engagements since the war
against Spain, which ended in 1603, and England
was not prepared for a major armed battle. By
the early 17th century, the ‘knowledge of the art
and practice of war’ had greatly diminished in
England, protected as it was from the conflicts that
plagued Europe by the barrier of the Channel.13
The government strictly controlled the military
equipment in the country and the weapons stored
either in city armouries or in the private households of the rural gentry.14 It is possible that some
of Jamestown’s arms were being supplied from
these private armouries; there is, however, no
evidence indicating this.
Gentlemen comprised about one-third of
the individuals arriving at Jamestown in the first
few years; they were probably responsible for
many of the arms, especially the non-military issue
weaponry, recovered from the fort. Most of them
were well versed in the art of war through military
service with European armies. Many had been
introduced to the new military reforms in the
FIG. 1
James Fort: buckler, diam. 123mm (photograph, Michael
Lavin, APVA).
Netherlands, fighting on the side of the Dutch
in their war of independence against Spain. Sir
Thomas Gates, who was serving in the garrison
at Oudewater in south Holland, even brought his
entire company from the Netherlands when he
took command in 1609 as the colony’s first governor.15 Many of these veterans probably came to
Virginia with their personal arms, rather than
having to rely on cheaper military-issue weapons
provided by the Company.
The buckler
An example of a civilian weapon that probably
belonged to one of the colony’s gentlemen is
a buckler found in the bulwark trench of James
Fort dating to c. 1607–10 (Fig. 1). The incomplete
iron boss is all that remains of the small hand-held
Bucklers were usually round, about 11–14in
(0.28–0.36m) in diameter, with leather or wood
foundations reinforced with overlapping iron
rings. At the centre was a hollow iron boss with a
projecting spike. Grips behind the boss on the
backside allowed it to be held in the hand and be
wielded to parry blows from an opponent’s sword.
Used in England from the 13th to the 16th century,
these small leather or wooden shields, primarily
of Welsh manufacture, were very well suited to
hand-to-hand combat.16 Bucklers were carried in
the hand opposite the sword to ‘dint and blunt
the edge of [the] Enemies Sword’, and protect the
wearer’s body ‘from Blows and Wounds’.17
In the mid-16th century, Italian fencing
schools began championing the use of the long
piercing blade of the rapier, in conjunction with
a dagger in the other hand, to block thrusts.
This ‘poking fight of rapier and dagger’18 gained
widespread popularity among English swordsmen.
The buckler provided little defence against the
lengthy rapier and was soon abandoned.
The James Fort example is the only documented buckler excavated in English America. It
was probably an old weapon when it was brought
to Jamestown as the pear-shaped hollow boss
reflects the form found on buckler types depicted
in use c. 1520,19 and the manufacture of bucklers
is thought to have ended in the mid-16th century. 20
Following the Indian massacre of 1622, the
Virginia Company requested hundreds of old
bucklers that they understood were in the royal
armoury, only to be told that they were misinformed, ‘there not being any such at all decayed
in that Office’.21 It is unclear from this whether
there were no bucklers in storage or whether there
were no ‘decayed’ bucklers; but since the buckler
was considered an archaic weapon by the time of
Jamestown’s founding, it was probably the former.
Horseman’s axe
Another weapon probably brought by one of the
colony’s gentlemen is a horseman’s axe found in
the cellar fill of Structure 165, dating to c. 1610
(Fig. 2). The small iron axe is offset by a thick and
slightly curved fluke. Suggestive of the high quality
of the arm are the traces of silver damascening on
the hexagonal ferrule for the attachment of the
(now missing) wooden handle.
Cavalry forces in England used this type of
weapon22 but there is no indication that cavalry
was used in the colonists’ military engagements.
There were few horses in the early colony: the first
eight arrived in August 1609. By October, only ‘six
Mares and a Horse’ remained, and these became
sustenance for the starving colonists over the
following winter.23
FIG. 2
James Fort: horseman’s axe, length 170mm (photograph, Michael Lavin, APVA).
While armour is rarely found on archaeological
sites in England, many elements of body armour
such as breastplates, tassets, backplates, gorgets
and helmets have been discovered in Virginia’s
early 17th-century trash deposits. At the time that
the use of armour was declining in England as it
became less and less useful against increasingly
powerful firearms and new battle tactics, it was
needed in Virginia for protection against Indian
arrows. This need continued until serious threats
from the Indians abated in the mid-17th century.24
Even so, the colonists found the body protection to
be a disadvantage at times. John Smith noted that
‘the Salvages are so light and swift, though we see
them (being so loaded with armour) they have
much advantage of us though they be cowards’.25
The lack of dexterity, as well as discomfort in
scorching Virginia summers, caused the early
colonists to eschew the wearing of plate armour
until the introduction of martial law in 1611.
The result is that many elements of plate armour
have been found in the fort’s early trash deposits.
Some pieces reflect recycling efforts, such as the
breastplate that had been carefully fashioned into
a cooking pot or pail and was found in the c. 1610
cellar of Structure 165 (Fig. 3).
Breastplates, protecting the chest area, were
integral parts of armour worn by European
soldiers from the 15th until the 17th century. Stylistically they reflect male civilian clothing, which
provides a general date of manufacture. A breastplate excavated from the fort’s bulwark trench is
of a very rounded 16th-century type with a short
bottom flange (Fig. 4). The armholes are cut wide
to incorporate the addition of underarm gussets.
Gussets, which were unfashionable by the beginning of the 17th century,26 are curving iron lames
that are riveted to the armhole opening of the
breastplate. On some gussets the rivet slides on
a horizontal slot in the upper end, allowing for
some movement and flexibility. All but two of the
173 gussets found in the fort were excavated from
c. 1610 contexts, which suggests that these elements had been removed from breastplates and
discarded (Fig. 5).
Another complete breastplate was recently
recovered within a fort-period well [Structure 170]
that was filled in the 1620s (Fig. 6). It is of the
‘peascod’ shape more typical of the very early 17th
FIG. 3
James Fort: breastplate fashioned into a cooking pot or pail, c. 1610, length 300mm (photograph, Michael Lavin,
century and has brass diamond-shaped washers
on the shoulder strap rivets, a feature possibly
suggesting a Dutch origin.27 Significantly, the
breastplate was modified on the right armhole,
which had been cut away to incorporate a small
rectangular plate with rounded edges (Fig. 7). It
is one of three breastplates excavated from early
17th-century Virginia sites that display this
The breastplate adaptation dates from some
time after Sir Thomas Dale’s arrival in the colony
in 1611. As the new governor, Dale enforced
military discipline through his code of behaviour
entitled the ‘Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall’.
In an attempt to reduce the deaths of his men from
Indian arrows, he made it a law that ‘every shot
shall either be furnished with a quilted coate of
Canvas, a headpiece, and a sword, or else with a
light Armour and Bases quilted’.29 At the time it
was not customary for soldiers carrying firearms to
wear ‘light armour’ — that is a breastplate and
backplate known together as a cuirass. Patterned
after Dutch military reforms implemented around
1590, there were at this time three components
to the English army: the pikemen, who carried
a pike and wore armour; the musketeers, and
shot (calivermen) who carried firearms but were
armour-free (Fig. 8).
In light of the implementation of this new
order for all to participate in the ‘dayly wearing of
these Armors’, the modification to the breastplate
provided the men with firearms a way to steady
the butt of their weapons against the slippery surface of the breastplate. In other words, the added
plate functioned as a stop on the right breast,
which early English military manuals show as the
proper place for the musket, rather than against
the shoulder.30 These laws must have worked, for
one colonists remarked that the Indians ‘not being
acquainted nor accustomed to encounter with men
in armor, much wondered thereat especially that
they did not see any of our men fall as they had
done in other conflicts’.31
With the greater use of firearms on the European battlefields in the 17th century and the
concomitant need for thicker, heavier and more
cumbersome armour, there was a gradual decline
in the use of armour. Among the first elements
to be abandoned were tassets (except for fighting
on foot)32 and, judging by the 96 tasset lames
recovered from James Fort, these appear to have
been discarded by the Jamestown colonists as well.
FIG. 4
James Fort: early breastplate, length 340mm
(photograph, Michael Lavin, APVA).
FIG. 5
James Fort: gusset, length 240mm (photograph,
Michael Lavin, APVA).
Tassets hung in pairs from the front of the
breastplate and protected the upper thigh. The
type found at Jamestown dates to the 16th century
and consists of a number of narrow horizontal
lames riveted together to form a skirt (Fig. 9).
Tassets of the 17th century, which formed part of
the pikeman’s armour, are constructed of a single
piece that simulates separate lames and contains
rivets that serve no purpose. While not recovered
from the James Fort excavations, this type has
been found along with the earlier type of tasset on
Maryland and Virginia sites dating to c. 1618–50.33
Although the long tassets with knee-pieces that
formed part of cuirassier armour have not been
found at James Fort, a fauld lame, gauntlet, and
couter from sealed c. 1610 contexts suggests that
they were present in the early colony (Fig. 10). The
fauld or skirt consisted of two or more lames
FIG. 6
James Fort: modified breastplate, length 390mm
(photograph, Michael Lavin, APVA).
FIG. 7
James Fort: detail of alteration (photograph, Michael
Lavin, APVA).
that were fastened to the bottom of the breastplate
to protect the abdomen and to provide attachment
points for the leg tassets. ‘An integral part of
cuirassier armour’ by the 17th century, the fauld
replaced an earlier use of mail.34 The cuirassier
was a heavily armoured cavalryman, equipped
with a close helmet, gorget, breast- and backplate,
vambraces, gauntlets, and tassets extending to the
A single gauntlet for the right hand may also
be part of cuirassier armour (Fig. 10:2). Found in
the same context as the fauld [Structure 165], it
consists of six articulated metacarpal plates, one
extended to cover the thumb. A knuckle guard is
riveted to the last plate and there are attachment
holes for the missing finger and thumb lames.
Also indicative of these substantial suits
of armour is the couter found in the c. 1610 Pit 1 of
the fort (Fig. 10:3). The couter fits over the elbow
and with the vambrace forms protection for the
arm. Like the couter from Martin’s Hundred, the
piece has decorative roping along both edges
and along the median ridge, indicating that it was
originally part of armour that was of reasonable
The gorget is a plate protecting the neck area
exposed between the breastplate and the helmet; it
also supports the cuirass and allows attachment of
the vambrace. It consists of a front and bac …
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